Most of us have probably imagined what it would be like. The official letter from the attorney’s office informing you that you’ve inherited millions. Or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime lottery win. Or maybe meeting that perfect someone who’s also really wealthy. However it actually happens, the ‘rags to riches’ dream captures people’s imaginations. I’m sure we could all think of films and books in which that’s the main plot point.
It shows up in crime fiction, too. But of course, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, despite the fantasy. The ‘rags to riches’ phenomenon is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include this plot point. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s had a very modest life in the village of St. Mary Mead for ten years, where she’s been paid companion to Mrs. Harfield. When her employer dies, Katherine gets the exciting and surprising news that she’s been named as sole heir to Mrs. Harfield’s considerable fortune. She’s now going to be quite a wealthy woman, and things begin to change immediately for her. In one amusing scene, for instance, she gets a letter from a Harfield cousin, who tries to persuade and then bully her into parting with the money. Then, she gets a letter from one of her own distant relatives Lady Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Rosalie has found out about her cousin’s good fortune and suddenly decides that it might be nice to have her visit. Katherine is no fool, and knows exactly what Lady Rosalie has in mind. But she has always wanted to travel, so she arranges to go from London to Nice, where Lady Rosalie lives, on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on her way to meet her lover Armand de la Roche. The two end up having a long conversation, so when Ruth is murdered, the police want whatever information Katherine can provide. Hercule Poirot is on the Blue Train as well, so he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why.
In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new business partner Beau Rummell set up a private investigation firm. One of their first clients is wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and hasn’t established bonds with anyone in his family. He wants Queen and Rummell to track down his relations so that they’ll be in a position to inherit when he dies. Then, Queen becomes ill, so Rummell has to take on the ‘legwork.’ He follows the trail to Hollywood, where Kerrie Shawn is an aspiring actress. She hasn’t had much success though, and shares a dingy place with her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day. Word comes that Cole has died, and Rummell gets the distinct pleasure of telling Kerrie that she is set to inherit a large fortune. Cole’s will stipulates that she and the other heir, Margo Cole, must share his home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit, so she and Vi move to the house. As you can imagine, trouble soon begins, since such a large amount of money is at stake. Then, Margo is shot and Kerrie becomes a suspect. By this time Rummell has fallen in love with her, so he wants to clear her name. If he does, it’ll be a real case of ‘rags to riches’ for both of them.
When Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series begins, her sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is trying to get his life back together. He’s a former big-city crime reporter and author who’s hit some hard times and gotten far too familiar with the bottle. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he gets a chance to start over when his former boss Arch Riker hires him as a features writer for the Daily Fluxion. At first, he lives the sort of paycheck-to-paycheck existence that you might expect. A bit later in the series (The Cat Who Played Brahms has the details) Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s friend Francesca ‘Fanny’ Klingenschoen. The only proviso is that in order to inherit, Qwill must live in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ for five years. If he chooses not to do that, the fortune passes to Atlantic City. When word gets around that Qwill is set to inherit so much money, there’s resentment at first, since many of the locals were hoping the money would be used in the town. But they’re even more upset at the thought of having all of that money go to Atlantic City. As fans know, Qwill finds a way to make it work. He’s not comfortable with vast wealth anyway, so he remains in Pickax and sets up a charitable fund, the Klingenschoen Foundation, that supports many town projects. And that still leaves him with more money than he could ever need.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, readers are introduced to Jodie Evans. She’s been brought up, as the saying goes, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ near Sydney. Her home life is not good, and she would like very much to get free of it and out of poverty. Her first chance comes when she does well enough in school to get a scholarship to an upmarket secondary school. Then later, she meets Angus Garrow, an up-and-coming law student from a ‘blue blood’ family. He falls in love with her and the two marry, very much against the wishes of his mother, who was hoping he’d choose someone from his own social class. For a long time, it seems that Jodie has successfully gone from ‘rags to riches.’ She and Angus remain married and she has two healthy children. There’s certainly a difference between her perspective and that of her new social circle, but she’s learned to fit in. Then everything changes. Her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a girl she named Elsa Mary. No-one knows about the child, not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie says she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption, but when the extra-vigilant nurse does some checking, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked, first privately and then very publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As the story spreads, Jodie becomes a social pariah to the well-off people she’s been living among for so long, and she learns who her real friends are.
Even winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a great way to go from ‘rags to riches.’ Just ask Waldemar Leverkuhn, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. After a lifetime of working for a living, he and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. He goes out with those friends to celebrate; but later that night, he is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate. When they learn about the lottery ticket, one of their questions is whether someone was anxious to keep Leverkuhn’s winnings. The truth is more complicated than that, but it goes to show that riches can’t always protect you.
There’s just something about the ‘rags to riches’ fantasy. I’m sure you can think of lots of good examples of it that I’ve not included here. Just as well, as I’ve got to see what’s in this letter. You never know…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.